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Stage 14 - Thames Chase Forest Centre to Davy Down  (8.0 miles)

 

The stage starts at the Thames Chase Forest Centre, the headquarters of the Thames Chase Community Forest. It was built on the site of Broadfields Farm. The route passes through the old village of Cranham, then Cranham Marsh Nature Reserve, Corbets Tey, Belhus Country Park, Belhus Chase and the town of Aveley. For the last two miles we follow the Mardyke Way to the finish at Davy Down.

 

Many of the original old farm buildings of Broadfields Farm have been preserved and put to use. The farmhouse is now offices. The 17th Century barn has a cathedral like feeling from the inside. It has been fully restored, is Grade 2 listed and is open to the public. It is one of the best examples of a 400 year old barn in the country. Adjoining the barn is the new Forest Centre, first opened in 2005, and rebuilt in 2009 after burning down due to a lightning strike. This is an impressive triangular timber building housing a café, shop and exhibition for young and old. The centre is mainly manned by volunteers, it’s clean, it’s spacious and the products are environmentally friendly. From the café and its large outside eating area you can admire the views of the surrounding countryside and watch the M25 trundle silently past in the distance.

 

Thames Chase is one of twelve Community Forests in England. They were established in partnership by a number of bodies in 1990, in and around major urban areas. The partnership includes Local Authorities, the Forestry Commission, the Countryside Agency and other local and national organisations. The forests’ aims are to “demonstrate the potential contribution of environmental change to economic and social regeneration”. Their work includes protecting current woodlands; planting new woodlands; create and improve other natural habitats; plant and restore hedgerows; open green space for recreation and leisure use; restore and create recreational routes and organise and encourage more local events and community activities.

 

Thames Chase Community Forest covers an area of 40 square miles of East London and South West Essex. It is a delight to be able to use many of their areas in our route through this part of country.

 

The forest comprises of seven areas and each area covers a number of different sites. In total there are 55 sites and these must take a lot of work to maintain and develop.

 

The blue headings below give a link to the Thames Chase map of each area. The first one gives a key and general information on the maps. The sites our route passes through in each area are listed in order below the links to the relevant map.

 

 General Site Information

 

 Brentwood Area

Old Park

Thorndon Country Park North

Little Warley Common

Hartswood

Donkey Lane Plantation

Warley Gap

 

 North of Upminster

Un-named Woods

Codham Hall Wood

 

 South and East of Upminster

Franks Wood

Thames Chase Forest Centre

Cranham Marsh

 

 Aveley and Belhus

Belhus Woods Country Park

Belhus Chase

Belhus Park

 

 The Mardyke Valley

Mardyke Woods

Davy Down Riverside Park

 

The other areas of Thames Chase Community Forest, plus a link to their maps, and which our route does not pass through are listed below.

 

 Rainham and Corbets Tey

 

 The Dagenham Corridor

 

You can also visit the Thames Chase page on Facebook.

 

Start at the entrance to the Thames Chase Forest Centre and go south for just a few yards to the lane past the Forest Centre. Turn left along the lane for just 30 yards. Turn right onto a path going south and just to the east of the car park. After 15 yards turn right at a T-junction of paths and continue straight on ignoring a path to the left after another 100 yards. Soon turn right past an open area of small carved animals to your LHS and a pond to your RHS. On approaching the lane turn left and then left again following a footpath south-west through trees. The path soon veers right and now going directly west. Ignore any paths going off to the left until you reach a road (Pike Lane at 0.32 miles into the stage)

 

Cross straight over Pike Lane, onto a footpath going west along the LHS of a large open field and next to a ditch. On reaching the other side of the field, turn right, keeping the trees to the left. After another 50 yards turn left through a gap and into a second field. Follow the path straight on along edge of the field. At the corner turn right keeping the field edge to the left and now below a railway line. After 160 yards turn left through a tunnel under the railway and then straight on across a field, keeping the trees and lake in the centre to the left. At the other side of the field, go straight on along a narrow enclosed path. The path leads to a metal stile and into a small remembrance garden. Keep on straight then turn left into the main churchyard. Follow the path as it veers right through the churchyard to and out of the gate. Turn left along the lane (“The Chase”) past Cranham Farm to your RHS, soon Cranham Hall to your LHS and straight on through a kissing gate next to a larger gate.

 

This small settlement is called Cranham. Less than half a mile to the north is a much larger and more modern town which also has the same name.

 

On turning along The Chase to our right is Cranham Farm and within a few yards, to our left is Cranham Hall. The area around this small hamlet for almost a mile in every direction has been classified as a “Conservation Area

 

The Cranham Hall estate dates back over 1,000 years to at least Saxon Times. The Parish Church of All Saints is recorded from as early as 1254 and although the building has changed greatly over the years, it still remains on its original site. The church we see today was rebuilt between 1873 and 1875 by architect Richard Armstrong for the then Lord of the Manor, Richard Benyon. Many of the monuments and relics of the older church were retained and can still be seen today.

 

There have been many houses on the site of Cranham Hall during the centuries. An older house was rebuilt by Lord Petre around 1600. It was replaced by a new hall in 1800 and still maintains a gateway dating from around 1520. The farm dates back hundreds of years and although maintaining its original character is divided into small industrial units.

 

Cranham Hall’s most famous resident was General James Edward Oglethorpe (1696 – 1785). He was born in London on 22nd December 1696 and led a coloured and varied life. He was baptised by the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was the youngest of seven children and his father died when he was six years old. leaving his mother Eleanor, an Irishwoman from Tipperary, to bring them up on her own. She, like James in later life, was tough and well educated. She had values, was well connected and would ensure her children received the best.

 

Thanks to his mother’s perseverance, James was educated at Eton and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He interrupted his studies to join the military and fought alongside Prince Eugene and The Duke of Marlborough against the Turks earning his military reputation at the Battle of Belgrade. He returned to England and re-entered Oxford in 1719. In 1722 he followed his father and two brothers into parliament as member for Haslemere.

 

He was a prolific reader, especially of classical literature and respected all cultures and the rights of individuals. His education, reading, and upbringing would lead to him becoming one of the world’s first real social reformers. He petitioned on the plight of ordinary sailors, how they were badly treated and the difficulties they had to overcome to get paid, if paid at all. This individual campaign cumulated in a pamphlet entitled “The Sailors’ Advocate” and an Act of Parliament. Through Walpole’s whole time as Prime Minister, Oglethorpe behaved like a thorn in his side, but through these actions he would achieve his aims.

 

In 1728 his friend, architect and writer, Robert Castell was imprisoned at “The Fleet Prison” in London merely for bad debt after stretching his finances to complete a book called “Villas of the Ancients”. A bit like today the prisons were run for profit and being unable to pay for a decent cell he was deliberately made to share a cell with a smallpox sufferer and through exposure soon died of the disease.

 

Oglethorpe had a lot of respect for Castell whose book would be a major influence in Oglethorpe’s work when he later designed a new town in America. He sensed the injustice and demanded an investigation into prisons and prisoner’s rights. Parliament granted his wish and he headed the enquiry and proposed much change. There was a lot of opposition to his actions, he even enrolled at Gray’s Inn to improve his knowledge of law and carried out his research thoroughly. His conclusions highlighted the injustices, the overcrowding, the brutality and the extortion which went on in these establishments. He revealed the plight of poor debtors and challenged why they should be in prison at all. His actions made him this country’s first major prison reformer.

 

In the Americas, England held the Carolinas. To the south were the Spaniards in Florida and the French in Louisiana. Oglethorpe proposed to found a new colony between the two as a buffer to protect the Carolinas to the north. His idea was to relieve the prisons of England from the poor debtors and unfortunates who filled them and give them another chance of hope in a new world.

 

After securing a royal charter from the King and money from thirty two members of the newly formed Georgia Trust he left from England in November 1732. He sailed in “The Ann” from Gravesend on his venture to set up the new colony. The main woman in his life, his mother, had died just four months previously. He was the only Trustee who went and he assumed command. Those who sailed with him were not what he first envisaged as they included people from all over Europe, yet he achieved his aim. He founded the state of Georgia; he designed and built the City of Savannah. The town was laid out on a spacious grid pattern, similar to a Roman town, with squares at some intersections. It was the first American town of this design. He befriended the local Yamacraw Red Indians and made them equals, and he saw off the French and Spanish when they attempted to invade. He abolished slavery in Georgia and gave the blacks rights, 130 years before it was abolished in the USA, although his actions would be repealed years later in Georgia. Everyone was given an equal start and was only allowed to accumulate enough property and wealth to live comfortably. During his stays in Georgia he lived in a tent and made no profit from his work. He was highly respected by everyone in the new colony, especially those to whom he gave the chance to start a new life.

 

He left Georgia for the last time in July 1743. Although he returned to England a hero, he soon faced a court martial because of false allegations from one of his officers. He was vindicated of all charges as he had used most of his own money on the administration of the colony, even using his own home in Surrey as collateral for loans. A few days later Parliament voted to reimburse him for all the expenses he incurred.

 

In 1744 he married Elizabeth Wright in Westminster Abbey. She was a Baroness and heiress to Cranham Hall. They lived the rest of their lives between Elizabeth’s family home at Cranham Hall and a town house in London.

 

Oglethorpe eventually lost his parliamentary seat in 1754. He tried, on a couple of occasions, to get re-elected, but failed.

 

In 1745 he faced court martial again when he allowed the retreating Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army to escape north to Scotland. Once again he was acquitted of all charges and although he was promoted to Major General, he was never again employed by the Crown or given an official appointment.

 

Not to be kept out of military issues he travelled to Europe and fought as a volunteer in the Prussian Army during the Seven Years War, alongside an old friend from his day at the Paris Military Academy, Field Marshal James Keith. He was at the Field Marshal’s side when he was killed at the Battle of Hochkirch in 1758.

 

In later life he continued to petition for British seamen and was involved in the founding of the British Museum. He built up a wide circle of friends from the arts and literary world. One of them, Dr Samuel Johnson, once said of Oglethorpe,

 

`I know no man whose Life would be more interesting. If I were furnished with materials, I should be very glad to write it.'

 

Oglethorpe died on 30th June 1785 at Cranham Hall. His wife died two years later. Both are buried in a vault beneath the chancel of All Saints Church. There is a large memorial plaque to him on the south wall of the church.

 

James Oglethorpe was probably best summed up in “A Lecture given on 5th October 1996 in the Chapel of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in the presence of the Governor of Georgia, the Hon. Zell Miller, and the members of the Oglethorpe Tercentenary Commission, by the President of Corpus Christi College, Sir Keith Thomas PBA”

 

Today he is still honoured as a hero by the people of Georgia. A statue to the founder of Georgia sits in the middle of the main thoroughfare in Savannah. Many place names and institutions still bear his name and many people still come on pilgrimage to visit his homes in Surrey and Cranham and his final resting place at All Saints Church.

 

To read the full history of the Cranham Hall estate from Saxon times until the mid 20th Century follow the link to “Chapter 2. The Manor of Bishop’s Ockendon”  

 

After passing Cranham Hall and through the kissing gate, go straight on along a wide track between a wall and a field. The track soon opens out with fields on both sides. Continue straight on, directly south and into a wood after 0.3 miles (Spring Wood). After another 150 yards where the path opens out and at a Y-junction of paths, veer right along a grassy path, soon to cross a footbridge over a stream. Then follow the path as it turns right again through Cranham Marsh Nature Reserve. Continue straight for 350 yards, with a fence to your RHS, to the end of the fence and where a path turns right to lead north. DO NOT turn onto this path, go straight on for a short distance on a grass path, then follow it as it then veers right to go diagonally across an open green space. At the opposite corner of the opening follow the path over a footbridge then almost immediately turn left to cross over the stream again via a second bridge. Once over, continue straight on, through a wooden kissing gate, along a narrow path through trees and adjacent to and past the Memorial Gardens of Upminster Cemetery.

 

After 350 yards and with a school to the right follow the path as it turns left and after 100 yards comes to an open field. Turn right along the edge of the field, then eventually straight on along an enclosed path between houses (at 2 miles into the stage).

 

The footpath comes out in onto a residential road (Huntsman’s Drive). Turn left along the road and follow it for just over 120 yards. On approaching the far end veer right, staying with the houses on the RHS and keeping some trees to your left. Follow this as it narrows to a short enclosed footpath which cuts through to a small layby next to Ockendon Road.

 

Turn left, and within a few yards to Ockendon Road. Cross straight over and after just a few extra yards turn right Sunnings Lane.

 

The area around here is called Corbets Tey and is part of the London Borough of Havering. The borough is the second largest in London and half of it is designated green belt. The old centre of the Village of Corbets Tey is just a short distance to the right, where our route crosses Ockendon Road, and retains much of its character as a village. Since 1990 the village has been designated a Conservation Area. There is history going back to Medieval Times and many well kept old buildings – some listed. The village also features greatly in archaeological books as being famous for rich ice-age deposits and finds from gravel pits.

 

Sunnings Lane is about 0.85 mile long but is narrow and usually quiet. For the first 400 yards the east side is lined with cottages backing onto open land. Just past these and on the same side is Sullen’s Farm. The farmhouse dates from the 16th Century and is a listed building. On the other side of the lane is Great Sunnings. The house is surrounded by farmland and set back from the lane. It dates from the 17th Century and again is a listed building. Below is an extract from the Museum of London’s Archaeology Service (MoLAS) suggesting this site was occupied during the Later Iron Age and then early Roman period.

 

“During the Later Iron Age a pair of large, roughly rectangular defensive enclosures dominated the Great Sunnings Farm site. These were linked and had steep-sided ditches about 4m wide and 2m deep. People continued to live here during the early Roman period, dumping rubbish in the old ditches and digging wells or waterholes for stock. During the 2nd century a system of long narrow fields had been laid out across the site.”

 

Sunnings Lane, although a quiet country lane, has been in the national news twice in recent times. First in 1999 a local man was convicted of producing £50 million in forged notes. The second and more recent was in September 2006 when a local policeman saw a traffic warden writing a parking ticket for his car for parking on the pavement. The policeman quickly ran home, put on his uniform, called backup and arrested the warden for harassment. The local council as employees of the warden complained and he wasn’t charged, but I don’t know if the policeman had to pay the fine.

 

Since then Sunnings Lane has been in the news again. This time it was due to local residents in a battle against planning permission to develop this green belt land as housing or for the extraction of its rich gravel. Until now, thanks to local and national campaigning, all applications to develop this land have been rejected. However, it may only take time until permission is granted. You can read about this and other threats of developing London’s green belt at the Campaign to Protect Rural England website (CPRE).  

 

Just a few years ago, through support from Havering Residents’ Association, the local Borough Council was considering closing the lane to traffic and making the southern part below Sullen’s Farm pedestrian only. This would be greatly beneficial to our route and, as mentioned in the link above and as shown in the photo, would make this ancient lane less susceptible to the modern day practice of fly-tipping.

 

The last half mile along the lane has only hedgerow and countryside on both sides. Apart from the fly-tippers, other litter and a couple of electricity pylons it is peaceful and scenic. There are a couple of opportunities to go cross-country, but the lane seems to be the most obvious route.

 

A short distance to the east of Sunnings Lane is the Stubbers Adventure Centre. This is a large outdoor activity area for children and is set among a number of lakes, all which were once gravel pits. The entrance is on Ockendon Road. It has jet ski, sailing, canoeing, kayak, raft building, banana rides, climbing, abseiling, high ropes, tunneling, off road 4x4 driving, quad biking, archery, fencing, rifle shooting and mountain boarding.

 

At the southern end of Sunnings Lane continue straight on (now Bramble Lane which comes from the left and at this point turns left to make what seems to be a continuation of Sunnings Lane). After 130 yards and where the road turns sharp right at a large metal gate, go straight on through a gap next to the gate and onto a wide track – Green Lane. Follow the track south for almost two thirds of a mile, then as the main track turns sharp right, go straight on along a bridleway.

 

After 40 yards turn right, at a crossroads of footpaths, and off the main track, signed “Footpath 264’ to Belhus Park (be sure not to miss this). Then just before a gate into a field turn left over a stile onto “Footpath 246” to Belhus Park. Follow the path directly south – a small stream and the woods are to the left; an open field is to the right through the hedgerow.

 

Just a thought, and I believe it’s worth mentioning. At the point where our route leaves the main track / bridleway through Belhus Park the track veers right and continues for half a mile, between and just south of some old gravel pits, now lakes. However, from above looking at the landscape this track seemed to have once continued to where the M25 motorway is now and then go eastwards through South Ockendon and beyond. At the same point, where we leave the main track, another old route appears to go south (almost identical to the path we follow) to Aveley.

 

I have read some references about Sunnings Lane being an ancient track and have just touched on this above, yet I have not found anything to back up this claim. Where we join Bramble Lane at the southern end of Sunnings Lane, I have always been confused why the name changes. It only makes sense that this was originally a continuation of Sunnings Lane and Green Lane into Belhus Park was another continuation. The continuation of this, seemingly being one or both of the two well defined routes of old tracks to and through South Ockenden and the other to Aveley. The ancient hedgerows with which both are lined seem to justify this assumption. However, if anyone can supply any more information, I’ll be really grateful. I have come across many other old tracks which were cut off by the building of the M25. It’s just a shame to have lost these as all it would have taken was a tunnel under the motorway or a footbridge over it to have preserved them and left them accessible to the public.    

 

After 250 yards, follow the path over a footbridge and then straight on at a junction of paths and into the woods. In 150 yards the path comes out onto a wide track / lane. Turn left and after 30 yards, at a fork, follow the lane as it veers right (at 4 miles into the stage) and eventually leads to a gate. Go through the metal kissing gate next to the gate and straight on and south across Belhus Chase. The path continues south across the Chase for half a mile (with the hedgerow to your RHS) to come to another metal kissing gate. Go through the gate and straight on into a thick wood. The path through the wood is narrow and you must take care from overhanging trees. At a junction of paths take the left fork. Shortly to the left, through a metal fence golfers can be seen teeing off on a hole of Belhus Park Golf Club. After another 250 yards turn left through a gap in the fence and veer left across the golf course using the marked public footpath. Be wary of the golfers as it is easy to distract them or to get hit by a golf ball.

 

Belhus Woods Country Park covers 310 acres and has a diverse landscape of woodlands, grasslands and lakes. There are 140 acres of managed deciduous woodlands, most of which is ancient. One section uses the ancient management practice of “coppicing” based on an eight year cycle of hazel which is cut for traditional crafts including thatching, hurdles and hedge laying.

 

The park has four lakes formed from previous gravel extraction. Two are set aside as conservation areas for wildlife and informal recreation such as walking or bird watching, the other two provide good quality fishing.

 

There are many facilities here including a café and visitor’s centre. There are disabled facilities, ample parking, fenced off children’s play areas, picnic and barbecue areas and many miles of footpath, bridleway and cycle paths. On site clubs include model boating, model plane, archery and junior league football. There is an events programme of activities and courses. These include the annual American Civil War re-enactment after Easter each year, “Mayhem" funs days in June, botany courses, woodland craft courses and guided walks.

 

The route goes straight through the middle of the park. The visitor’s centre is only a short distance to the west along the lane in the middle of the park and the lakes are just east. The route leaves the park by passing through the metal stile next to a gate. The footpath continues directly south across Belhus Chase. Formally a deer park and arable land, the Chase was acquired by the Woodland Trust in 1998. The Trust is doing much work to convert the area into a traditional parkland setting through new areas of woodland planting and meadow creation.

 

The park was once a large country estate surrounding Belhus Mansion. The Tudor style red brick mansion was built around 1520 by John Barrett and is thought to have been built on or near the site of an older house. The Manor of Belhus gets its name from a previous owner Nicholas de Belhus, great, great grandfather of John Barrett, who acquired the property in the late 14th Century. According to Wikipedia, the house was visited by Queen Elizabeth I in 1578 and is also haunted. It became the family seat of their descendents the Barrett-Lennards. In the mid 18th Century, Thomas Barrett-Lennard, 17th Baron Dacre (1717-1786), commissioned landscape gardeners Lancelot Capability Brown and Richard Woods to redesign the park.

 

On the Thurrock History Website you can read part of an interview from 17th May 2005 with a then surviving member of the Barrett-Lennard family, 90 years old Father Sir Hugh Dacre Barrett-Lennard, 6th baronet (died 2007).

 

During the First World War a large tented army camp was set up in the park in April 1915 and occupied by troops. The soldiers lived in the tents while the officers lived in the mansion.

 

The family estate was broken up in 1922 and was sold off to the local councils and the Woodland Trust. Belhus Mansion was eventually demolished in 1956, but some of its foundations are still visible in the centre of the golf course.

 

In 1982 this section of the M25 was completed and cut the park and Capability Brown’s long pond in two. Two footbridges were built over the motorway giving pedestrian access between the two sections. In 2003, thanks to a group of local residents, a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and support from the Thames Chase Partnership a Belhus Park Heritage Trail was established. This is a two and a half mile circular walk which follows the boundary of the old Belhus Park.

 

Follow the path as it goes through the fence to leave the golf course and exits Belhus Park onto Park Lane, at Aveley.

 

Belhus Park Golf and Country Club is just along the lane to the left. It is run by Impulse Leisure and includes a clubhouse, driving range, health & fitness club and football pitches.

 

Continue straight on, south along Park Lane staying on the RHS (now at 5 miles). After 300 yards the lane is cut in two by the B1335 (Aveley Bypass), luckily a well placed footbridge over the bypass still joins both parts. Stay on the RHS and over the footbridge, then straight on along the southern half of Park Lane.

 

On reaching the T-junction at the end of Park Lane, cross straight over and turn right along the High Street. After 200 yards turn left at The Old Ship Pub into Ship Lane. Follow Ship Lane out into the countryside and after 0.4 miles over the A13 trunk road (at 6 miles into the stage). Stay straight on along Ship Lane for another 350 yards then turn left onto a bridleway signed “Mardyke Way”. The bridleway follows the valley at a short distance north of the Mardyke River and along a contour above the floodplain.

 

Across the road, to the left, as we come onto the High Street is the Aveley Christian Centre. On the front wall is a blue plaque dedicated to Alice Mangold Diehl (1844 – 1912). A musician and novelist who was born in a house near to this spot.

 

Aveley for many centuries was a small village. However, after World War II with the building of new housing to take some of the overspill from London the population of the village increased greatly and it became a town. These extra inhabitants provided workers for the industries on the Thames at Purfleet just two miles to the south, and for new factories and gravel extraction around the town.

 

Aveley is built on higher ground above the marshland of the Mar Dyke stream. Its name seems to have been derived from the Saxon “Aelfgyth's leah” – “Aelfgyth” being the name of woman at the time who probably owned the settlement, and “leah” meaning a forest clearing or meadow. However, there are also references to Aelfgyth being derived from Viking.

 

In 1248 Stephen de Langton, Lord of Aveley Manor, granted the village a weekly market on a Monday. This went on for over 100 years and became one of the busiest in the area. An annual three day fair was also granted by Bartholomew Brinson, in 1286 which continued for over fifty years. During these Norman Times there are also recordings of at least two mills. Since then there have been many markets and fairs, some legal and some closed down for being illegal. However, they all show how important Aveley was as a focus point for the local area. It is believed the earliest market took place in the area which is now the High Street. During the 16th and early 17th Centuries the growth of the Belhus estate had a marked effect on the economy of the area, and at its peak occupied 70% of the lands in the parish. However, in the 19th Century several more farms were built in the area and after World War I the Belhus estate was broken up and sold off. Today most of the land is owned by the Woodland Trust, Thames Chase and local councils.

 

The Old Ship Inn on the junction of the High Street and Ship Lane dates from around 1754. However, there was a pub called the Swan on this site as early as 1498. The Crown & Anchor is just a short distance west on the north of the High Street and dates from 1618. It is also the founding place of one of the UK’s oldest bands, the Aveley and Newham Band, formed in 1894 and still going strong today.   

 

Just a short distance along Ship Lane, to the left and partly hidden behind houses is the Grade 1 listed ancient Church of St Michael, built in 1120 and parts of which are thought to date back to Saxon Times. Within it there are many memorials and tombs to well-known people of the area, including the de Belhus and Barrett-Lennard families of Belhus Park. A brass from 1370 is of medieval knight in armour, Radulphus de Knevynton who appears on the “Thurrock Coat of Arms”.

 

On 27th July 1964 just north of Sandy Lane, Aveley (just north of the B1335 to the west of the town), in a gravel pit near Sandy Lane Farm, bones of prehistoric mammals were found including the skeleton of a straight tusked elephant immediately overlain by those of a woolly mammoth. They date back to c200,000 years ago and are on display in the Natural History Museum in London. Research from these and later excavations in the area show the course of the River Thames once passed through here. Other excavations in Essex, including some at Corbets Tey, near the start of the stage, also show the Thames earlier (over 400,000 years ago) took a more northerly course and flowed into the sea near Clacton. At this time, because of the larger ice caps the sea level was lower and the coastline would have extended further out into the sea. Its course was pushed south through progressive Ice Ages. The ice sheets would leave deposits of sand and gravel behind them as they climate warmed and they retreated northwards. This explains many of the ridges north of the Thames and why many areas of south and east Essex are rich in sand and gravel and the numerous amount of extractions which have gone on here over the years, leaving behind them pits to fill up with water and form many of the lakes which we pass today.

 

Below is an excerpt from a book “A Look Beneath the Essex Landscape” by Gerald Lucy which is available on the Internet. Pages 86 & 87 have the story of the Aveley Elephants, the cat and the news article from the Daily Telegraph.

 

 “Over thirty years later, in 1997, a nearby road cutting for the A13 exposed the same sediments and Aveley again found itself with nationwide press coverage. The reason this time was the first discovery in Britain of the bones of a jungle cat, an animal that today lives in China, Central Asia and Egypt. The Daily Telegraph, in particular, covered the story well with the front page headline ‘Mother of the modern moggie found in Essex’. With the jungle cat were the bones of six species new to Aveley including a brown bear and a very large lion.”

 

The Finest Prospects Website is a wealth of information, photos, sketches and maps on the archaeology, history and people of south Essex. Their project is called “The finest prospect in all England”. It is run by Essex County Council Heritage Conservation and funded by English Heritage with a grant from Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund. The project’s aim is to enhance public understanding and appreciation of the outstanding archaeology of south Essex.

 

Follow the Mardyke Way Path for almost half a mile to and under the M25 road bridge. Continue straight on soon passing under the A13 road bridge (at 7 miles), then straight again along an enclosed path with a wood to the left and a fence to the right with the river a short distance away and below. The path follows the edge of the wood for 0.65 miles. Here turn right with the path and after 80 yards turn left towards a large viaduct. Follow the path under the viaduct and 40 yards later turn right to cross a footbridge over the river. Once over, go straight on along the centre path (staying to the right of the trees) and finish 300 yards later next to a bench below a small café at Davy Down.

 

The Mardyke Valley is an important wildlife corridor linking Purfleet and Rainham Marshes to the Fens at Bulphan and Orsett. The Mardyke Way runs from Ship Lane in Aveley to Fen Lane, Bulphan. There are pleasant views along its seven and a half mile walk on footpaths and bridleways. It is managed by Thames Chase and due to recent funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minster and other sponsors the Mardyke Valley Project is currently underway. The Project aims to surface the path, increase access, extend access to the Thames and protect and improve the habitat and wildlife of the area. Another important element of the project is to increase usage of the valley by the local community and raise awareness of the rich heritage of the area. This is being achieved by holding free events and activities in the valley and educational sessions for local schools. Information about these events and activities can be sought from Thames Chase.

 

The route stays with the Mardyke Way for just under two miles, but there’s a lot to see in this short distance. Travelling along the path, look right across the green peaceful valley with the river meandering through it, yet one just needs to raise their eyes a little to realise a sense of entrapment with major road systems, industry and urbanisation all around. The bridge in the distance carries the M25 across the valley -the path goes under it. On approaching there is a feeling of being able to reach up and wave at the vehicles as they pass. However, the scale is so huge it’s deceptive. After leaving this long tunnel like structure behind there is little time to recover before being faced with what seems to be the same all over again. This time it’s the A13 which towers over above. Almost immediately to the left and thankfully out of sight is junction 30 where they meet. However, on looking closely at a map the intersection does extend over both bridges and explains why they are so wide.

 

The Valley is a green oasis amongst these urban land uses. Wildlife abounds in the area, including rare water voles, badgers, glow worms, bats and numerous bird and butterfly species.  

 

From here the path follows an enclosed track with the valley to the right and Mardyke Woods to the left. The woods are one of the oldest in Essex and were acquired by the Forestry Commission in 2002. This ancient semi-natural woodland consists of oak, ash, hazel and sweet chestnut trees. It is beautiful all year round, full of delightful wildflowers in spring and fascinating fungi in the autumn.  

 

The path passes under Stifford Viaduct just a few yards before the footbridge over the river. This impressive railway viaduct was built across the Mardyke Valley in 1892, and with the river now next to the path, this time it’s a pleasure to walk under.

 

The finish is next to a bench on the path directly behind the café. The green area around the finish is called the Davy Down Riverside Park and covers an area of 33 acres. From at least 1730 the land was farmed and more recently used for market gardening. The site was acquired by Thurrock Council in 1985 to allow the building of the A13 trunk road. The road split the land in two and in 1993 this half was opened to the public. As well as a café there is also an information centre and the well preserved Stifford Pumping Station, built in 1927 and still extracting water through a 150 feet deep borehole in the chalk below.

 

To get to the start of the next stage, you have a few choices:

 

1.     Walk 1.28 miles (see map) to Chafford Hundred Railway Station and catch the X80 bus (Bus information for X80). It crosses over the QE2 Bridge and stops at Littlebrook Interchange. This is 0.36 miles from the start of stage 15 at the QEII Bridge Viewpoint (see map). The bus journey takes about 15 minutes.

2.    Arrange a mini-cab – this maybe expensive.

3.    Travel by car along the A13 over the valley to join the M25 at intersection 30. Then south along the M25 and over the QE2 Bridge. Stay in the left hand lane at the toll booths and take the first exit. This leads to a roundabout – get in the right hand lane and take the 3rd exit, signed Bridge Viewpoint. The start is just 250 yards along Cotton Lane.

 

Whichever transport you take, as you travel west along the A13 and south along the M25 back over the valley. Look down on the pleasant green corridor below with the peaceful path ambling gently through it, whilst the rest of the world passes over it at speed.

 

Directly in front, along the motorway, in the distance a structure towers above everything around. This is the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and it carries the M25 south and over the Thames to Kent. It is almost 2 miles long and in the centre is 200 feet above the river. When opened, by The Queen in 1991, it was the longest cable-stayed bridge in Europe. There is no foot access over the bridge and this means a break in the route.

 

I’ve few regrets we are not permitted to walk over it - we’d have to close off one of the lanes. Maybe we would be allowed to walk through the Dartford Tunnel, below, which takes M25 traffic northbound from Kent to Essex. Something possibly to consider for future years - or maybe not as the case may be.

 

From the bridge the views are breathtaking. The Thames Estuary with the remains of its huge docks and industries lie below and into the distance. The channel tunnel rail link comes at an angle from the northwest, goes over the Dartford Tunnel exit, under the bridge and travels less than half a mile further before disappearing into a tunnel under the Thames. On descending, look carefully in front and slightly to the left, to see a small open area on the hill and against the horizon. This is where we are headed and the starting point for stage 15.

 

You can watch a video of a drive over the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at YouTube.

 

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